Monday, May 01, 2006

And I really liked tamales, too ...

Dad gummit. I hate it when politics gets in the way of my enjoying all things international.

I shouldn't even have to defend myself this way, but I'm gonna. I really love stuff and people from other countries. Always have. Credit my natural curiosity or the multicultural flavor of Generation X children's shows like Sesame Street, but I've always appreciated the exotic, the unknown, the different.

I was in middle school when I became fast friends with an American-born classmate of Ecuadorian and Cuban immigrant parents. I heard about how the Communists in Ecuador stripped their family bare, and they came to the United States for another chance at a good life. I watched as her mother -- a divorced woman with two girls -- learned English and got an education and leaned on her faith in God and her family's love. I watched as they moved from a small but neat apartment in the local government housing project to a pretty home in a middle class neighborhood. Both of the girls -- who had lived abroad as children and didn't speak a lick of English when they moved to Birmingham -- got excellent grades and went on to college and lives of their own. The American dream at work. Cool!

I also sat amazed at holiday gatherings where the adults congregated in the kitchen, speaking rapid-fire Spanish, while we youngsters watched MTV in the playroom. I ate tamales. I worked on my Spanish. I saw how they loved each other and loved a good party and loved freedom. They were true Americans but with a unique flavor that added to my own experience.

It was an instructive time and part of the reason why I went on to study Spanish in high school and college, earning entry into the National Spanish Honor Society. I learned the thrill of communicating entirely in another language, became friends with a Mexican exchange student, worked on a mission trip in Mexico and gained a deep appreciation for the spirit and character that define what it is to be Latino.

And now, I find myself getting sick.

My Ecuadorian pals came to my homeland, brought something unique to share with us gringos but also embraced the best of what America has to offer. They were American and Hispanic; loyal to their country but fond of the homeland; assimilated but not homogenized.

Now, as I watch angry protests and hear bitter slander of America as a supposedly racist and hostile country ("we hate you, but let us have your money and services"), I wonder what in the world happened. What, was I wrong? There's nothing good about being American? Learning English is tantamount to ethnic cleansing? You can't love America and be true to your heritage at the same time?

The rewriting of the national anthem was a blow to the gut. It makes me ill because it is a repudiation of everything that America -- fallen and erring as it is -- has tried to be for the wanderer and the oppressed. All we ask is that you give as well as take. Give our culture a chance as we are continually lectured on respecting other people's cultures.

I realize that lazy governing and sleazy business practices have put us in this jam. Hey, I've seen Mexico -- and not the touristy part. It festers with poverty and truncated opportunity. If I had a chance to escape to America, work for what amounts to an exorbitant wage by Mexican standards without paying taxes and with free social services to boot, I don't know that I'd turn it down.

Yet I am not willing to just lie back and take this abuse without protest. Call me a racist if you want -- I think I've demonstrated that I'm hardly a xenophobe and probably more multiculturally aware than the average nortemericano. But if I have to just open my wallet and bend over with no protest to avoid being called something nasty, NO THANK YOU. I refuse to piss on my country, and as long as some "activists" are doing the same, you can forget my support.

Two years ago, I was on an airplane next to a Mexican-born American woman in her 60s. We were in Houston, waiting to pull away from the concourse. I noticed she wore a red, white and blue scarf with a Liberty Bell print. True to her culture, she actively engaged me in conversation, telling me all about the grandchildren she was flying to visit. A couple of men a few rows back were chatting in Spanish -- hardly uncommon in Houston. I didn't pay them any particular mind, but she watched them for a moment, turned back to me and sniffed, "English is not that hard to learn! I don't see why they don't learn to speak English."

We talked more, and I learned she was an eager consumer of the American dream and damn proud of it -- but again, hardly homogenized or stripped of her Hispanic flavor. I wonder what she thinks of these protests. I could guess. And I hope she's not the only one.

1 comment:

Rich said...

Eloquently said, Princess. Agreed wholeheartedly.